A powerhouse of R&B and soul in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Gladys Knight fronted the Pips, a vocal trio that included her brother, Merald, on a series of chart-topping singles and albums including "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "Midnight Train to Georgia" and "You're the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me." From the launch of their career on the Southern club circuit in the late 1950s, Knight's soulful and dynamic vocals, underscored by the glittering harmonies of the Pips, established her as a formidable figure in popular music. After landing at Motown in the late 1960s, she scored several hits on the R&B charts, but found her true success at Buddah in the early 1970s with "Midnight Train to Georgia," the group's first No. 1 pop hit and signature song. After a brief separation over legal issues, Knight and the Pips reunited for a decade's worth of additional hits while she established herself as a solo act as well as a capable actress on television and in the occasional film. After scoring a No. 1 pop hit with "That's What Friends Are For" (1986), Knight and the Pips closed out their landmark careers in 1988, whereupon Knight kicked off her solo career in earnest, with numerous Top 5 hits and a 2001 Grammy award among its accolades. In the late 2000s, Knight appeared to retire from popular music to concentrate on gospel, but her glorious body of work with the Pips remained among the highwater marks of 1960s and 1970s music.
Gladys Maria Knight was born May 28, 1944 in Atlanta, GA to a middle class family led by her father, postal worker Merald Woodrow Knight, Sr., and his wife, Sarah Elizabeth Woods. Knight began singing at the age of four, and displayed her prodigious vocal talents as both a member of the touring gospel group the Morris Brown College Choir, and as a seven-year-old winner of Ted Mack's "Original Amateur Hour" (DuMont/ABC/NBC/CBS, 1948-1970) in 1952. That same year, she joined brother Merald, Jr., who was also known as "Bubba," sister Brenda, and two cousins in an impromptu group performance at a relative's birthday parties. Encouraged to make their vocal group a real act by a cousin, James Woods, whose nickname - Pip - gave the group their unique moniker, the Pips were soon comprised of Knight, Merald and cousins William Guest, Langston George and Edward Patten.
By the late '50s, Gladys Knight and the Pips, as the group would eventually be known, was a staple of the "chitlin' circuit," a network of black clubs and halls throughout the segregated South. There, they developed a reputation for their precise harmonies and dance routines and Knight's fiery vocals while serving as the opening act for countless established R&B and blues groups, including Ike and Tina Turner, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding. In 1961, they scored their first Top 20 hit with "Every Beat of My Heart," a cover of a Johnny Otis song that had been previously recorded by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. More singles followed, but the mid-'60s were largely a period of transition for Knight and the Pips. Langston George left the group in 1961, reducing the act to a quartet, and Knight briefly retired to start a family with her first husband, James Newman. The Pips toured briefly as a trio before Knight returned to the group in 1964.
In 1966, Knight and the Pips signed with Motown Records, where their careers took off with a string of top hits for the veteran soul label. 1967's "Everybody Needs Love" cracked the Top 40, and was immediately followed by "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," which shot to No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 2 on the pop charts. Producer Norman Whitfield had recorded multiple versions of the song with a number of Motown artists; one year after Knight's version was released, Marvin Gaye took the song to even greater heights.
From 1969 to 1972, Knight and the Pips scored a string of hits for Motown, ranging from the raucous "Nitty Gritty" (1969) to the "psychedelic soul" of "Friendship Train" (1969) and more traditional R&B groove of "If I Were Your Woman" (1970), which hit the top of the R&B charts. In 1972, Knight and the Pips earned a Grammy for "Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)," which marked the end of their tenure with Motown. In interviews, Knight stated that she and the group had tired of being relegated to second-string status behind the label's tent pole acts: Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and in particular, Diana Ross and the Supremes, who reportedly had Knight and the Pips booted from their opening spot on a 1968 tour because they were upstaging the female trio.
The year 1973 saw Knight and the Pips sign with Buddah Records, which generated the biggest hits of their careers. The wistful "Midnight Train to Georgia" (1973) brought them their first No. 1 pop hit and a second Grammy award, and was followed by a string of hit songs, including "I've Got to Use My Imagination" (1974), "You're the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me" (1974) and "On and On," a collaboration with Curtis Mayfield for the soundtrack to the feature "Claudine" (1974). The following year, Knight and the Pips gained their own variety show, the short-lived summer replacement series "The Gladys Knight and the Pips Show" (NBC, 1975). Their tenure as a best-selling pop and R&B act would continue for another decade, but not without its hurdles.
Legal troubles with Buddah forced Knight and the Pips to record separately for several years. During this period, Knight made her acting debut in the drama "Pipe Dreams" (1976) as a woman fighting to regain the love of her husband (played by her real-life spouse, producer Barry Hankerson), a worker on the Alaskan pipeline. Two solo albums, Miss Gladys Knight (1978) and Gladys Knight (1979), the latter for Columbia Records, preceded a lengthy and heated divorce from Hankerson, as well as a custody battle over their son, Shanga Ali. At the time, Knight was also struggling with a serious gambling addiction.
In 1980, Knight and the Pips reunited for Columbia Records, where they slowly rebuilt their career and reputation, beginning with a No. 1 R&B hit with "Save the Overtime (For Me)" (1983). During this period, she co-starred with Flip Wilson on the short-lived sitcom "Charlie and Co." (CBS, 1985-86) and joined Dionne Warwick, Elton John and Stevie Wonder the following year on "That's What Friends Are For," a benefit single for AIDS research that reached No. 1 on the pop charts and won a Grammy for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group. The following year, Knight and the Pips recorded their final album, All Our Love, which closed their extraordinary recording history with another No. 1 hit, "Love Overboard," and a Grammy in 1988. That same year, they also received the 2nd Annual Soul Train Heritage Award, which was later renamed the Quincy Jones Award for Career Achievement.
Now officially a solo act, Knight's first release was the title theme for the James Bond thriller "License to Kill" (1989), which reached No. 6 in the U.K. She saw better returns with her third solo album, Good Woman (1991), which shot to No. 1 on the R&B charts and featured a No. 2 R&B hit single, "Men." Its 1995 follow-up, "Just for You," achieved gold status sales and won a Grammy nomination for Best R&B album. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Knight appeared to focus more of her attention on guest roles on television while serving as director of the Mormon-themed choir Saints Unified Voices for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Her secular career also earned numerous tributes from the entertainment industry, including Knight's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1995 and her induction with the Pips into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. In 2001, she won her first solo Grammy for her album At Last, and followed it with a Grammy for Gospel Performance for "Heaven Help Us All," a 2004 duet with Ray Charles.
The following year, Knight published her autobiography, Between Each Line of Pain and Glory, which candidly detailed her numerous marriages and struggles with gambling issues. She continued to devote her time to the Saints Unified Voices, which won a 2006 Grammy for their album One Voice, while making celebrated guest appearances on various albums and in live shows, including a 2008 duet with Johnny Mathis and an appearance with Chaka Khan, Patti Labelle and former label mate and bête noir Diana Ross at a benefit concert at Radio City Music Hall that same year. In 2009, she launched her farewell tour in the U.K., despite a contrary statement by "American Idol" (Fox, 2002-16) judge Randy Jackson that he hoped to bring her into the studio in 2010. Although her days as a live performer may have been nearing an end, Knight continued to pursue other creative interests. In one of her rare film appearances, she played a concerned parishioner in the comedy-drama "Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All by Myself" (2009). Two years later, the "Empress of Soul" was announced as a celebrity contestant for the 14th season of the reality dance competition "Dancing with the Stars" (ABC, 2005- ) under the tutelage of professional hoofer Tristan MacManus.